Last week, New Zealand-born, LA-based songwriter Boyboy (aka Sam McCarthy, ex Goodnight Nurse, Kids Of 88) released his debut, self-titled album. For The Spinoff, his mum, Lyn McCarthy, asked him about his writing process, meditation, and what’s going on in that cover photo.
What’s your album called? All I can see is some funny logo up in the right-hand corner and a photo of you imitating a hippopotamus yawning.
(Laughs) The album is called BOYBOY. It’s self-titled. The logo in the top corner is two circles with a line through them that create two Bs, back-to-back.
What’s the photo all about?
The photo was an accident from a photoshoot I did with Chelsea [Jade]. I was doing a facial muscle stretch where you do vowels with your mouth as wide as you can, ‘A E I O U’, and she happened to catch me in the middle of ‘I’.
The photo is so detailed you can see everything and it’s got some whiskers, so you sort of think, ‘is this a BOYBOY that’s starting to get his whiskers?’
I didn’t realize I was having photos of me that day as the shoot was meant for Chelsea. I hadn’t shaved.
Some of your songs have backing vocals in a normal voice, and some with special fx on their voices, so on ‘None Of Your Love’ there’s a rappy voice.
I’d have to hear what you mean by the rappy one. Is it a low voice?
Yes it is.
(Imitates tuned down ‘LOVE’ vocal)
No – not that low, I wouldn’t have thought, or maybe it is. It just reminded me of a rappy voice. Then on ‘Gimme’ it sounds like the background vocals are in a squeezebox.
What’s a squeezebox?
The image I get of a squeezebox – is this voice going through this box, so there’s a big voice going in one end and ‘yeeeee’ coming out the other.
(Laughs) Yeah, I think I know what you mean.
When you’re making a song, you’ve got the words and the music, you’ve got a rappy effect and a squeezebox effect, how do you make them?
I sing pretty much all the backing vocals myself and then manipulate them to sound like other people. That way the songs can have voices that sound different but are still coming from one person.
So where do you get your ideas from and how do you expand that into a whole song?
This is where I say, ‘If I told you I’d have to kill you’.
I still ask myself those questions. It generally comes from thinking about something I’m going through, and it becomes a song idea when a one-line statement comes into my mind that best describes that.
So they’re quite personal songs?
Yeah, I just find it easier to write that way. If I’m experiencing it, I have a visual narrative in my mind of what’s happening and I can write about that, but if I haven’t experienced something then I’m just trying to imagine and it’s not the same.
Have you noticed any set time frame that you write a song in?
Recently I’ve noticed that the songs I like the most are often written the fastest, sometimes within an hour or two. Of course not completely finished, although the thing that helps to make it fast is preparation.
What does that mean?
Like if I know I have a writing session, I’ll prepare by trying to think of that one line. Once I’ve got it I might come up with some chords so when I go into the session I can jump into writing the rest of the lyrics. Otherwise, there can be a lot of pressure to come up with something.
So do you feel that pressure at times?
Yeah, I think the reason why I prepare is that I hate that feeling of pressure, so it’s like a coping mechanism, but at the same time it works. I have to leave some things up to chance because if it’s all predetermined it might be boring. But a framework helps.
You used to have that little black book where you’d write down words or ideas, and draw pictures. Do you still do that?
Yeah, I do. I do a page of scribbling, like a stream of consciousness, in the morning, I might have been holding something in that might be really helpful, but maybe the difference now is that I only use it if it aligns with the topic I’m intending to write about, otherwise it can get blurry and I’m trying to write things as clear as possible so other people get exactly what I mean.
That ‘AM Walk’. I thought it was quite unusual for an album, but you have to listen really closely to hear the walking. I was wondering what you’d be hoping the listener would get from that? Couldn’t you turn up the volume of the recording?
I was almost slapping my feet on the concrete to make them louder.
But it still didn’t make it very loud.
I mean, it’s something I made when I used to walk around Echo Park in the mornings. The different types of sounds that come in things I would hear on my walk, so it’s more to give you an idea of what’s in my mind when I’m walking around.
I didn’t hear anything else other than the footsteps.
There’s an AM radio that gets tuned in? There’s music and stuff? And then there’s someone talking?
I didn’t hear that bit. I’ll have to listen to that bit again.
(Laughs) (Sound of the family dog snoring)
So you know, one of the major impacts on your life is meditation. What influence do you think the meditation has had on your music or your approach to music?
It’s mostly affected the writing process. I don’t think my music sounds that different from what I made before. In the meditation you’re trying to develop concentration, there’s physical and mental involvement, it’s like problem-solving, and because I do it every morning, it sets up a kind of blueprint for the rest of the day, so I’m probably going to approach writing in a similar way. I guess that’s where the preparation comes from. I know that when I sit down on a cushion I’m going to try and focus on my breathing for an hour, but if I went to a writing session and said ‘let’s just see what happens’, it’d be the opposite. I want to know roughly what it is I’m trying to achieve.
So do you think the meditation is reflected in the sound of the music?
Well, first of all, the sound of meditation is just silence, so I don’t think I’d be able to earn a living as a musician if I was just making silence (Laughs). Also, I don’t think the esoteric aspects of the religious practice are things I’m wanting people to relate to. But, maybe if I talk about having compassion for yourself or others, which the meditation deals with, it’s something most people experience and so there’s a bridge.
Also, I think there’s already a stereotype in music of generally white male musicians coming in touch with spirituality and kind of becoming ‘gurus’ and I think I’m trying to avoid that.
(Laughs) It’s probably a good idea. So the last question is what have you taken from Auckland that you keep alive in LA, is there anything that you’re able to hang on to?
I think politeness is something I was able to develop well from living in Auckland and find it’s something I don’t alter when I go to America. I think a lot of slang I seem to hold on to. Like just putting ‘as’ on the end of everything. People seem to pick up on that a lot.
Well, thank you, Sam!
Thank you, Mum!
That was a great interview!
A great interview! One of the best actually!
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